This book … may have gotten me excited about academic writing for the first time in what feels like a millennium, more accurately about two decades. As McGregor writes, A Sentimental Education is her trying out a new type of academic writing that is more in line with her podcasting voice. It’s not a voice, she says, that’s an essentially truer version of herself, but one she likes a lot better than what’s common in conventional academic writing.
Like with any ideas-focused writing, I know it’s a hit with me when it gets my brain buzzing and has me itching to record my thoughts and responses. Also, though, this book made me cry and have, well, feelings. I laughed out loud multiple times! The illusion that these two responses — intellectual vs emotional — are contradictory or ill-paired is explored in the book at length.
If you’re like me, you’re a fan of McGregor’s podcasting work already: her longstanding and now rebooted Harry Potter podcast Witch, Please that she co-hosts with tongue-in-cheek self-defined fellow “lady scholar” Marcelle Kosman and Secret Feminist Agenda, an interview podcast where McGregor talks to experts in all types of disclipines about feminist topics. Obviously I highly recommend both. (Secret Feminist Agenda has concluded, but Witch, Please is still running new eisodes). But if you’re not already listening to her podcasts, I have no doubt this book will have you racing to subscribe on the podcatcher of your choice.
But back to the book. A Sentimental Education is a collection of essays that run the gamut from analyzing the politics of whiteness in many beloved classics for (white) girls such as Anne of Green Gables and Little Women to discussing the mechanics of the podcasting form and how it engenders intimacy, authenticity, and familiarity. The book is a master class in the seamless integration of diverse tones, going from formal citations of Sara Ahmed to sentences like “Frankly, podcasting made me into a real hard-line bitch about open access” as if these different kinds of sentences were meant to coexist in the same essay.
McGregor writes about Witch, Please as originally conceived as a discussion of feelings and thoughts, about reclaiming feelings about books as they “were being rigorously professionalized out of us.” (This note reminded me of well-meaning advice I got when working on my applications to grad school in English lit: “for God’s sake don’t say you love to read.”) This lens applies to A Sentimental Education as well, as evidenced by my twinned reactions both emotional and intellectual. McGregor’s careful attention to affect when discussing literature, her moving inclusions of details from her personal life – especially about her mother’s death – and more are so refreshing. They’re not an addition to the intellectualism of the book; it’s an incorporation and a whole way of approaching the intellectual. I love it. It’s why the book spoke so deeply to me.
Other topics that I haven’t already mentioned you might be interested to know feature in A Sentimental Education: fatness, queer and asexual identity, feminist ethics of care, the call for relatability in art, the joys of critique as well as reading, the importance of action for social transformation instead of passive empathy, and more.
Here are some of my favourite passages. They are ones that made me laugh, ones that made me think deeply, and ones that made me cry:
It’s funny that a few times when I was writing this review I had an impulse to write “Hannah” instead of “McGregor.” Using an author’s last name is what I typically do to show I take the author’s work seriously. (I was taught this in academia, of course). Women authors tend to get first-named more often than men authors, surprise surprise. But I know this impulse is not coming from either disrespect or internalized misogyny. Sure, McGrgegor lives in Vancouver (where I used to live) and queer literary circles are not that big, so we have friends in common. But I’ve never actually met her IRL!
Instead, I think this instinct is coming from an effect of podcasting which she discusses at length in one of the book’s chapters. The intimate, personal nature of podcasts is an integral feature of the form itself. You might say a podcast’s airs of authenticity and listener intimacy is likely indicative of the craft and effort that have been put into it to make it seem so. In other words: the podcast is trying to make you feel like the hosts are your friends! But they aren’t! In other words, this meme:
(Shout-out to Heather Hogan who found this meme for me with only my vague description).
Anyway, that’s a long-winded explanation of the kinds of self-reflection and deep thinking this book encouraged me to do, and it happened when I was writing this very review! I’ve only scratched the surface of much of the brilliant and thought-provoking prose in A Sentimental Education. I encourage you to pick it up and then come talk to me about it when you’re done! Tell me which parts made you cry, laugh, and think.